How to Stay Safe Using Free Wi-Fi

It’s hard to believe that until the 2000s, the only way that most people could get online was by hooking up their computers to a phone line or Ethernet cable.

Ironically, the first portable computers were released way before we learned how to unchain ourselves from all those cables.

Believe it or not, the first laptops were released back in the 1980s. Among them was Apple’s Macintosh Portable, available in 1989 for a retail price of $6500. Weighing in at 16 pounds (over 7 kg), the “portable” computer was later named as one of the worst tech products ever invented.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the 1990s saw a rise in the popularity of laptops as the technology to create lighter, more portable computers improved, and the devices became much more affordable. However, if you wanted to go online, they weren’t very portable at all.

Wireless internet has been around for a surprisingly long time — it was actually invented in 1985. But it wasn’t until the 2000s that it started to become increasingly popular.

Today, Wi-Fi is an integral part of our lives. It’s ubiquitous in our homes, and hotspots in hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, and stores. Thanks to modern laptops, and the rise of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, we now use Wi-fi more than ever. Mobile Internet traffic has now exceeded desktop traffic, and there are now more mobile devices on the planet than there are human beings. Half of United States citizens now own tablets or e-readers, and over half own a smartphone. And 75% of people would rather go without coffee for a week than go without Wi-Fi.

However, the downside of Wi-Fi use is all the security vulnerabilities it creates.

Think about the last time you used public Wi-Fi. What information did you send over the network? How much sensitive data was stored on the device you used? Many unsecured public Wi-fi hotspots leave your devices open to hackers who are out to steal your data.

While you may be able to easily spot a spam email or a phishing attempt, some of these Wi-fi hackers are very sneaky — and unsecured public Wi-fi makes their job easy.

Want to keep your device safe while using public Wi-Fi? Here’s how.

Stay safe using free wifi infographic

Transcript: How to Stay Safe Using Free Wi-Fi

Free Wi-Fi has become indispensable for travelers, coffee addicts and remote workers alike. But with the convenience come some hidden perils for naïve users.

The Risks of Free Wi-Fi

Hackers and other cyber criminals are just waiting to exploit the security flaws in free Wi-Fi, using malware and other devious tricks to access your data.

Danger: Connecting to unsecured or ‘evil twin’ networks that don’t require log-in

Consequences: Allows a hacker to ‘listen in’ on your Wi-Fi session, stealing your personal details

  • 50% of US PC users have admitted accessing unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

Danger: Being tricked by spoof Wi-Fi names and connected to a fraudulent network.

Consequences:

Danger: Hackers using fake pop-ups to trick you into downloading malware.

Consequences: A cyber criminal might gain access to your data.

  • Close to 1/2 of adults online have suffered attacks from malware, hacking, scams, fraud and theft.

Danger: A criminal may access your bank or credit card accounts.

Consequences: Hackers can discover your bank details and access your account.

  • 1/3 of PC users in the US carry out security sensitive actions – such as shopping, banking, and anything that requires a password – on unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

So how do you guard against this?

How to Stay Safe

Listed in order of difficulty, these steps will ensure you’ve got the tools to protect yourself:

  1. Only Use Networks Requiring Log-in
    • How it works: Provides preliminary security measures before using Wi-Fi
    • Complexity level: Low
    • Cost: Free
    • Level of security: Basic
    • How to do it: Use Wi-Fi at established outlets and cafes
  2. On Smartphones, Turn Off Automatic Log-in
    • How it works: Allows you to control when you log in to a network
    • Complexity level: Low
    • Cost: Free
    • Level of security: Basic
    • How to do it: Disable Wi-Fi when not in use
  3. Turn Off File Sharing
    • How it works: If file sharing is on, your shared folders might be publicly accessible
    • Complexity level: Low
    • Cost: Free
    • Level of security: Medium
    • How to do it:
      • On Windows:
        • 3a) Go to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center > Change Advanced Sharing Settings
      • On a Mac:
        • 3b) From the Apple menu, click ‘System Preferences’
        • 3c) In the ‘System Preferences’ window, click the ‘Sharing’ icon in the third row
        • 3d) Uncheck ‘File Sharing’
  4. Forget the Network
    • How it works: Devices won’t automatically connect when back within signal range
    • Complexity level: Low
    • Cost: Free
    • Level of security: Basic
    • How to do it:
      • In Windows:
        • 4a) Go to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center > Change Advance in Windows
        • 4b) Uncheck ‘Connect Automatically’, or head to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center and select the network name
        • 4c) Click on ‘Wireless Properties’ and then uncheck ‘Connect automatically when this network is in range’
      • On a Mac:
        • 4d) Head to ‘System Preferences’, go to ‘Network’
        • 4e) Under the Wi-Fi section click ‘Advanced’ and uncheck ‘Remember networks this computer has joined’
        • 4f) Remove networks by selecting the name and using the minus icon underneath
      • On a Mobile:
        • 4f) On Android, enter your Wi-Fi network list, long click the network name and select ‘Forget Network’
        • 4g) On iOS, head to ‘Settings’ and select Wi-Fi networks – then choose the network and press ‘Forget This Network’
  5. Check for the HTTPS Padlock Sign
    • How it works: Sensitive information is securely transferred between locations
    • Complexity level: Low
    • Cost: Free
    • Level of security: Medium
    • How to do it: Check for the padlock symbol on your internet browser
      • Extensions such as HTTPS Everywhere can force your browser to use HTTPS.
      • This is available for Chrome, Firefox, Firefox for Android, and Opera.
  6. Keep devices up to date with latest security patches
    • How it works: Prevents known weaknesses or flaws from being exploited by criminals.
    • Complexity level: Medium
    • Cost: Free
    • Level of security: Medium
    • How to do it: Follow updates on your OS provider’s site. Download and install official patches.
  7. Install a Robust Internet Security System
    • How it works: Defends against malware and performs regular diagnostics
    • Complexity level: Medium/High
    • Cost: Free/Paid
    • Level of security: High
    • How to do it: Install Microsoft Security Essentials, AVG or Avast! – All unpaid options. Alternatively, install paid solutions such as Norton and McAfee.
  8. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
    • How it works: Encrypts data and defends against hackers
    • Complexity level: High
    • Cost: Free/Paid
    • Level of security: High
    • How to do it: Select and install a free or subscription based VPN service.
  9. Keep devices up to date with the latest security patches
    • How it works: Prevents known weaknesses or flaws being exploited by hackers.
    • Complexity level: Medium
    • Cost: Free
    • Level of security: Medium
    • How to do it: Follow updates on your OS provider’s site, and download new patches.

Wi-Fi can be a virtual lifeline for business users on the move. And by taking the right precautions, there’s no reason why it should present a threat to your devices.

Sources

  • Avast! SecureLine Answers High Demand for Secure Wi-Fi – avast.com
  • Staying Safe on Public Wi-Fi – cnet.com
  • HideMyAss on Windows – Guide on how to install HideMyAss on Windows – hidemyassguide.com
  • HideMyAss on Mac – Guide on How to Install HideMyAss on Mac – hidemyassguide.com
  • How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi Networks – lifehacker.com
  • 4 Safety Tips for Using Wi-Fi – microsoft.com
  • Microsoft Security Essentials Product Information – microsoft.com
  • How to Keep Your Business Safe on Public Wi-Fi – quickbooks.intuit.com
  • 2012 Norton Cyber Crime Report – static.norton.com
  • I Have Purchased a SSL from You. Now How Do I Use It? – support.hostgator.com
  • iOS: Wi-Fi Settings Grayed Out or Dim – support.apple.com
  • Security Risks of Using Wi-Fi Hotspot – tuftsdev.github.io
  • tuftsdev.github.io
  • Disable Mac OS X (10.5 and 10.6) File Sharing – udel.edu
  • Public Wi-Fi Risks and Why You Don’t Have to Fear Them – usa.kaspersky.com
  • Free WiFi. Costly Mistakes. – us.norton.com

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